Isla de la Juventud

Scott-Free’s blog
Steve & Chris
Wed 25 Jan 2012 00:50
21:36.921N 82:59.159W

Wednesday 25th January 2012

Distance run: 194 nmiles
Total distance run: 364 nmiles

The beat to windward was a real slog and somewhat of a shock to the system
since our habit is to sail with the wind abaft of the beam wherever at all
possible!  It took us two more days to complete the passage to the Isla de
la Juventud, tacking more than a dozen times, as the wind stayed in the east
or south east at 15-20 knots virtually the whole time.  Only when we tacked
up closer inshore did the wind drop to 12-18 knots and the seas flatten
slightly, but of course as soon as we tacked out again we got the stronger
winds and bigger seas, so it was quite a lumpy ride.

We were quite relieved when we had to shorten sail to slow down as we
approached the reef entry into the Ensenada de la Siguanea on the
south-western tip of the Isla de la Juventud, the largest of the Cuban
archipeligo.  Even though the break in the reef here is very wide, the depth
of the sea comes up from over a thousand metres to less than ten in the
space of 200-300 metres and as we didn't know what to expect, we didn't want
to do it in the dark.  As it turned out we wouldn't have known about the
change of depth if the chart and echo sounder hadn't told us, and we made
our way across the 10-mile stretch of the bay in 6-10 metres of water.

A catamaran was leaving the bay and called us up to ask about conditions
around the Capes as they were going the opposite way to us and would soon be
rounding them.  We took the opportunity to ask if the channel into Marina
Siguanea had been dredged as the pilot book showed depths of 1.5 metres in
the middle.  They said that they had gone aground in the channel and they
only draw 3 feet!  They had anchored just outside the channel and found it
quite calm, so having mooched around a bit checking out the depths, we
dropped the hook just off the red buoy, and waited to see if the Guardia
would come to see us.  We spent the rest of the day sorting out the boat,
sleeping, and generally being glad we were no longer at sea!
The leading mark into the 'marina' looks like a unicorn horn - or a very tall Mr. Whippy!

The following day we decided we would go ashore to stretch our legs and see
if the Guardia were at all interested in stamping our cruising permit.  Yes,
they were and they needed to do it on the boat even though we had taken it
with us to show them.  And as they didn't have a boat of their own we had to
give them a lift in the rib!  so four of us piled into the rib and went back
to the boat where we spent the next hour answering all the usual questions
as one of them completed two pages of his exercise book.  He then said he
will keep our cruising permit until we leave, when we will have to go and
get him again as he will have to search the boat all over again.

We then all piled back into the rib and went ashore again.  We walked the
mile or so along the road to the Hotel Colony which is the base for the
apparently popular dive centre which operates out of the marina no-one can
get into because the channel is too shallow. It was actually a very pleasant
hotel with pool and palm trees and beach, and almost completely deserted.
Presumably most of the guests were out diving somewhere.  We sat at the
poolside cafe looking out over the beach and enjoyed a very pleasant lunch,
before walking back to the rib.
From the poolside cafe at Hotel Colony.                                                                The beach - Scott-Free can just be seen in the distance between 2 middle trees.
We spent the evening looking at the weather and possible passage plans.  There are several factors to take into account, two important ones being that there is a Norther coming in by Sunday (strong winds from NW through to NE for a day or two) and our visas run out on Thursday!  We asked to extend them at Hemingway but they said it was too soon and assured us we would be able to extend them elsewhere, but it seems we cannot do so until Cayo Largo.  We decided we would leave on Thursday to head for Cayo Largo, and that meant that we could catch the 'local' bus into the capital city of the island, Nueva Gerona, the next day.  We had planned to sail there, but the Guardia say there is no provision for cruising boats there.
Today we were up bright and early and ashore by 0750.  The bus arrived at 0830 and it cost us $3 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos - the tourist currency - about £2) each to go the 42 kilometres to town. It was an enlightening experience as the bus detoured and stopped at a couple of towns/villages on the way and it was fascinating to see the Cuban people going about their everyday lives.  The bus was soon full and, having seen buses in Havana full enough to split their sides, we were very surprised when the driver refused to let anyone else on. We passed no cars and only a couple of truck buses (i.e. open trucks used as buses) and coaches until we hit the outskirts of Nueva Gerona.  Everyone was cheerful, friendly and very well turned out.  They seem to take a lot of pride in appearance, both in themselves and their homes.  The landscape was fairly green but arid in places, with scrubby bush dotted with palm trees covering huge areas.  It seems that much of the island is undeveloped - in fact it spent some of its history as a prison island, and Fidel himself spent two years in prison there after his first Revolution attempt failed in 1953.
Nueva Gerona is quite enchanting.  The main street is lined with pastel painted colonnaded houses making it cool to walk on either side of the street.  Cars are outnumbered on the roads by bicycles and horse-drawn carts.  There are people everywhere on the streets and street corners but it isn't crowded, just nicely busy.  And the touts and taxi drivers ask you once if you want their services then leave you alone.  We spent a very enjoyable day wandering around the town and taking it all in.  We had a late breakfast of toasted ham & cheese sandwiches which cost 8 National Pesos each (about  20 pence), and at lunchtime Steve's mojito cost 6 National Pesos (about 15 pence!) and they didn't stint on the Havana Club!  By comparison, my can of soft drink cost 8 National Pesos, which says something about how the Cubans view their drinks!  Fried chicken with rice and plantain chips for two cost 77 National Pesos (about £1.80). 
A main road into Nueva Gerona - not a car in sight.                                            Colonnaded buildings in the main street.
The church in the main square.                                                    A truck bus stops to pick up passengers.
The bus driver had told us to be in the same spot he had dropped us off at 14:50 for the trip back, and sure enough the coach arrived right on time and was empty.  He even asked if we needed to stop at the vegetable stalls to buy anything.  We understood why there was nobody else at the stop five minutes later when he pulled in at the bus station and hoardes of people tried to get on!  Many were disappointed and left behind, and we felt so grateful to this kind man who had made sure we had got our seats with no hassle at all by picking us up first.  When we arrived back at the 'marina' we thanked him for his kindness and gave him a much-deserved token of our appreciation. 
Out in the bay it was quite windy and it was a rather wet rib ride back to the boat, but all was well there.  Tomorrow morning we will check out and get the boat ready to move on, just 20 nmiles up the west coast of the island to a bay on the north-west corner.  With wind from the east or south east it should be a comfortable sail in flattish seas in the lee of the island.  Fingers crossed!